Luke DeCock

DeCock: Healthy Paige has one final shot at UNC

UNC basketball media day time lapse

Watch a time lapse video of UNC basketball players photographed by News & Observer photojournalist Ethan Hyman at the Tar Heels' Media Day in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC.
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Watch a time lapse video of UNC basketball players photographed by News & Observer photojournalist Ethan Hyman at the Tar Heels' Media Day in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC.

With the benefit of hindsight and some distance between Marcus Paige and the pain he suffered, the North Carolina guard makes it sound like his struggle last season with plantar fasciitis wasn’t all that bad.

“It’s not even really that legitimate of an injury,” Paige said. “It’s just like a nagging pain that won’t go away.”

Anyone who has ever suffered from plantar fasciitis knows Paige is being extremely modest. The inflammation of the tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot can be debilitatingly painful, to the point where every step can feel like jamming your heel onto a roofing nail.

While it can be treated with stretching and ice, the only real cure is rest. And for Paige, who played more than 33 minutes a night last season, rest was never really an option. North Carolina needed him in games, and he needed to be in practice to maintain his sharpness.

Feeling better by the end of the season, he then had surgery in April to remove the bone spurs in his right ankle that originally triggered the plantar fasciitis. Paige spent most of the summer recovering from that, but with practice under way, he is finally healthy.

“Marcus is feeling better,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He’s not in pain as much as he has been in the last few years, for sure.”

Once again healthy, entering his final season, Paige is the most important player on what could be the best team in the country. North Carolina needs Paige shooting and scoring like he did as a sophomore and at the end of his junior year. It needs him to be the Tar Heels’ best player from start to finish, and not just in second halves or final possessions.

To achieve what North Carolina is potentially capable of achieving, Paige must remain healthy and he must dominate on a scale he could not last season, physically and mentally.

Paige started slowly by his standards (while healthy) then saw his production continue to stagnate as the plantar fasciitis set in – even against N.C. State, his favorite victim, scoring a mere seven points in North Carolina’s first home loss to the Wolfpack since 2003. By the time he finally started to feel better, at the beginning of March, his junior season had generally been classed as a disappointment.

“At the beginning of the year I was 100 percent. I just wasn’t playing well,” Paige said. “I wasn’t shooting the ball well. A lot of pressure and expectations and stuff around me and I let it get to my head. By the time I started getting comfortable with it, I got hurt.”

Overall, his scoring and shooting percentages were down from his sophomore year, his assists up, his turnovers reduced. But over the final nine games of the season, a healthy Paige averaged 16.0 points per game, up from 13.4 to that point. Still, he went from first-team all-ACC as a sophomore – and the preseason player of the year last October – to third-team all-ACC as a junior.

This fall, he is at full speed again, not a moment too late for the Tar Heels, not a moment too late for Paige.

He knows North Carolina is loaded with talent. He knows expectations are high. He knows there were too many games the Tar Heels let slip away a year ago. And he knows this is his last chance at North Carolina.

“You don’t get those back,” Paige said. “This is our last chance to do something about that, or at least my last chance. It definitely stays in your mind.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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